It was a curious thing, how he rose so early in the morning, despite the long voyage behind him. Perhaps it was his upbringing, but Athelstan always found that the trials the others took in their stride would knock him into dizzying exhaustion for days. And as always, despite knife winds and a sea that seemed bent on inducing sickness, Ragnar seemed unfazed, eyes ghostly pale and deep-set.
But this morning is different. Maybe the northern air does it, maybe it is the smell of unwashed bodies and frantic sex, so different to King Ecbert’s court and his secret room of Roman treasures; maybe it is the urge to reassure himself that he has truly returned that rouses him. There is only the barest hint of light as he slips outside, squinting in the gloom to avoid treading on any drunkenly slumbering bodies as he makes his way. He breathes deep as the cold air hits his skin, then moves slow and quiet through the village, touching this house and now that, fingers caressing, reverent. All colours seem bright, as if he is back in the hills that night, chewing bitter mushrooms and watching as the whole universe pulses together, all things interconnected.
Despite his slow walk, he reaches the forest faster than he expected. He moves without any real direction, simply going deeper and deeper until he finds a stream. The water is so cold he can feel his teeth ache as he bends to drink, then splashes his face, cleaning away the feel of goose-fat and ale that always seems to linger in the lines of his skin after a feast.
England is beautiful, Athelstan thinks, as he stands again, but sometimes a man is not born where he is supposed to be, and must find his true place some other way. This cold land has a beauty that takes longer to find, and he finds that almost more pleasing.
Abruptly, he becomes aware that he is no longer alone. He braces himself, turns, and feels strangely unsurprised to see Ragnar leaning against a tree, cleaning the dirt from under his nails with a short, curved knife.
“A little early for a walk, isn’t it?” he grins, head slightly to one side, like a clever bird. His fingers spin the knife a little too quickly for Athelstan’s liking. “You don’t seem surprised to see me,” Ragnar continues, when his question receives no answer.
“I thought perhaps it might be Floki,” Athelstan admits, unable to maintain eye-contact. He has a brief flash of discomfort, but it disappears when Ragnar chuckles.
“I do not think he would bother to leave his wife so early, unless the gods called,” he says, and Athelstan wonders why Ragnar sounds a little bitter. Bjorn told him of Floki’s wedding, how it was kept from Ragnar, and Athelstan thinks again of how much he has missed, bound to England by blood and nails.
He doesn’t realise he is rubbing the palms of his hands until Ragnar clasps them between his own. He hadn’t even seen Ragnar cross the distance between them. “You still have not told me all that happened to you,” Ragnar reminds him, and Athelstan wants to confess, but in the dim light he also wishes, for a little longer, to pretend that neither of his beliefs can hold sway over him. He wishes to pretend, for a little longer, that there exists only this forest, only this stream, only this cold water to wash in. He pulls his hands away, aware that they have been touching for a long time, and begins walking again. There’s no point looking back to see if Ragnar is following – Athelstan learned long ago that Ragnar will come along as he pleases, lithe and cunning like some great cat. In his translations, Athelstan came across references to great cats, brought to fight men to the death. Northmen brought to fight Englishmen to the death is the most obvious comparison, but sometimes he feels like Ragnar is hunting down the last vestiges of his Christianity instead, a battle fought with words and deeds rather than blows and cuts.
They make their way down to the sea, forest thinning behind them. Athelstan almost trips and rights himself slowly, his body unused to the efforts of the past few days. He thinks he can feel Ragnar reach out to steady him, unseen, and it makes the hair on the nape of his neck stand up on end. “Were you just planning on a long walk?” Ragnar asks, his tone playful, “or is there some actual purpose?”
Athelstan only bothers to answer when they are close to the shore. He picks up a long piece of driftwood, throws it experimentally between his hands, gauging the weight. “It has been a long time since I held a sword,” he says, finally turning back to look at Ragnar.
There’s that look again, he thinks. Ragnar spreads his palms, amused. “Did you want help?” he laughs, pulling out his knife, and Athelstan has to remind himself not to get distracted by the way Ragnar manages to make it dance through the air. “Because you know I won’t go easy on you.”
He charges without warning, elbow straight into Athelstan’s stomach, and though he’s winded and staggering back through sand and water, Athelstan is more frustrated than angry – Ragnar’s lying, the knife only a joke. He grits his teeth, tries to remember the way he was trained, always weaker than the boys half his age, and blocks the light blows Ragnar rains down on him. His body remembers, though his bones judder unpleasantly.
They spar lightly for a while until Athelstan’s breath comes quickly and his left arm aches a little. His legs are soaked with sea water, but he feels more ashamed than cold. Ragnar hangs back for a minute, taking stock of the situation, then grabs Athelstan’s arm, almost wrenching it painfully from the socket as he twists it, and pulls him into an uncomfortable lock. The flat of his knife presses against Athelstan’s neck, one leg knocking him off balance.
“I can see we have a lot of work to do,” Ragnar grins, his mouth very close to the shell of Athelstan’s ear. There’s no point in struggling; when he does, Ragnar just twists his arm a little and Athelstan tries not to howl. As it is, he just makes a sound like a strangled whimper, and Ragnar loosens his grip a little. “Maybe next time you’ll stay by my side,” he adds, and Athelstan stops struggling abruptly.
“You know I regret that,” he says, staring up at the cloudy sky. He can feel his cheeks reddening, his breath coming out in tight gasps, and Ragnar rests his forehead against Athelstan’s temple, pulling hard on his twisted arm, like he really wants to hurt Athelstan but can’t quite bear to at the same time. Athelstan feels like whispering, Do it, do something, but he can’t form the words. They’re standing close, Athelstan off balance, held upright only by Ragnar’s grip now, and the whole world is rushing around him.
“Don’t do it again,” Ragnar says, a command, not a request, nails digging into Athelstan’s wrist. Athelstan holds back another sound, shutting his eyes tight. He can feel every line of their bodies pressed together. Ragnar moves the knife from Athelstan’s neck, pushing the hilt of it against skin and cloth as he drags it down until it rests just above Athelstan’s navel. He presses his face against the curve of Athelstan’s neck, almost bites, and Athelstan staggers as they fall apart. “Don’t do it again,” he repeats, and neither looks back as Ragnar leaves the beach.
There are vivid bruises on Athelstan’s wrist by evening, and the closeness of other human bodies, of hedonism and drinking, makes him tense. Though he’s no stranger to this kind of behaviour from Ragnar, it makes his cheeks burn when he thinks of it. In a sense, they have always been like that, on that beach; Ragnar pulling him close, painfully close, and Athelstan unable to break away, even if he wanted to. Fingers clutching at each other, always promising something more than this burning feeling, but always failing to follow through. It is as maddening as it is delicious, the threat of a sin that Athelstan is beginning to wish he could commit.
The day drags into evening, the routine of life coming back with surprising ease. Athelstan is surprised by the warmth with which so many welcome him back, but still chooses his words carefully. Mostly, he watches, trying to discern where he fits now, where the others fit. There is so much he has missed, he thinks again, as he listens to stories of Jarl Borg’s invasion, of Rollo’s redemption, of Ragnar’s triumph. In the dim light of the hall, he watches Ragnar as he sits, that strength curled up, ready to ignite new fires. Athelstan thinks about faith, and how he wishes he could be content to have faith in men, rather than gods who don’t bother to answer, except in riddles.
In the deep breath of the darkest hour of the night, unable to sleep, he walks again. He knows, as always, that he does not need to look back to see who follows. When he reaches the sandy ground of the sparring area he unwraps the light sword that he had bartered from the blacksmith in the afternoon, the hilt comfortable in his grip. It is a sword for a child, he thinks, a little bitterly, but tries not to let it bother him. The sword feels like a poor excuse for them to touch again.
He manages a few testing swings before Ragnar’s fingers close over the bruises on his wrist again, but instead of the pain he was expecting, Athelstan is simply restrained, his back pulled flush against Ragnar’s. How many times is this going to happen, he wonders, bitterly, as Ragnar’s fingers curl into the bruises. Now they burn, now his arm is on fire; he shudders in the grip, head falling back against Ragnar’s shoulder. He drops the sword abruptly, and Ragnar pushes him away.
Athelstan turns, confused. He can barely see Ragnar’s expression in the darkness – this was a stupid idea, who trains with swords in the dark? – but he thinks he’s angry, and then he knows he is because he’s being pushed against the nearest wall, trying not to stumble, and they are close enough that Athelstan could teach Ragnar scripture in whispers.
They stay like that for a second, and Ragnar pushes his nose against the line of Athelstan’s jaw. “I have thought of you,” he says, so quiet that for a moment Athelstan thinks he’s dreamt it. He reaches out in the darkness, finding the edge of Ragnar’s shirt, and pushes his hands beneath it, hardly daring to think of what he’s doing. He finds hot skin, palms flattening over a beating heart so like his own. The memory of Ragnar’s fingers curling into his thigh as he asked him to return sears his mind. Ragnar pushes him hard against the wall again, and this time he kisses Athelstan quickly, and then again, a question and then an answer. Athelstan opens his mouth without meaning to, because it feels wrong to do it any other way, and Ragnar bites lightly on his lower lip. That’s the only concession to softness he gives, because the rest of the kiss is utterly relentless. Athelstan can feel him hard against his hip, and though he knows this is the wrong place for it, he wants to run his hands over all of Ragnar’s skin, learn him.
When they run out of breath, Ragnar’s hand snakes up to curl around Athelstan’s neck, and it makes him shiver. “Did you think of me?” Ragnar asks, his voice rougher than normal, and Athelstan cannot help but grind his cock against the sharp edge of Ragnar’s hip. He feels breathless and heady, like bubbles from a waterfall are bursting against his skin, and all he wants is to be skin-close with Ragnar in the warm dark. “Did you think of me?” Ragnar repeats, and Athelstan moans a confirmation before he can even think otherwise. Ragnar makes a pleased sound, his hands fumbling with Athelstan’s belt, and they kiss again, clumsy and eager. Athelstan digs his nails into Ragnar’s back as his breeches are pushed down, then moans into the kiss as Ragnar pushes their cocks together into the warm space between their bodies. They rock together, Athelstan pouring his moans into Ragnar’s open mouth, reaching down to wrap his hand over Ragnar’s where they push together. “I always think of you,” he admits, with his breath coming short, and Ragnar swears, almost laughing.
“I will be finished if you say that again,” he says, smiling against the skin of Athelstan’s jaw. He pushes Athelstan’s hands away, holding them against the wall, and drops to his knees.
During some celebrations, when he had drunk too much and couldn’t move without the world spinning, Athelstan had often found himself near couples who had seen fit to fuck wherever they chose. He had often wondered, though, why the women sometimes did not simply open their legs, but instead used their mouths.
He understands now, as Ragnar licks slowly down the length of his cock, then tongues each of his balls before returning to kiss the tip of him. “Be quiet, now,” Ragnar whispers, and Athelstan puts his wrist up against his mouth, feeling the bruises from the morning press painfully against his teeth. Ragnar takes him in an inch at a time, maddeningly slow, until Athelstan has to force himself not to thrust into the heat of his mouth. He burns for release, but he cannot not let go, caught on some plateau as maddening as purgatory. Ragnar hums, his cheeks hollowing around Athelstan’s cock, and he swallows. Athelstan cries out, forgetting for a moment that they are outside, and Ragnar slaps his thigh hard, hissing.
“I will have to shut you up myself,” he murmurs, getting to his feet again, and Athelstan cannot not reply, leaning heavily against the wall, his prick slapping up hard against his stomach as Ragnar lets go. “Much though I would prefer to make you louder,” Ragnar whispers, rubbing his cock slowly against Athelstan’s, and kisses him again. “For me, now,” he commands, and though Athelstan is beyond servitude, beyond thought, he cannot deny him, coming hard and hot over their linked fingers. Ragnar presses his face against Athelstan’s shoulder, biting down as he comes, and they still.
As coherent thought returns, Athelstan realises Ragnar is tucking him back in, arranging their clothing, kissing him slowly, gently. He feels weak, still clinging to Ragnar’s shoulders, now unwilling to be parted from him.
They stay like that for a little while, and then Athelstan walks back to his room, not needing to look back to know who follows.
In the days that follow, he has to explain, with kind words and sometimes harsh ones, what had been done to him. As he speaks he sometimes wonders if this will always be the pattern of his life – a new king to rescue him from some unbearable pain caused by some unseen gods, a new pattern of servitude, a new freedom, and then a change – and then Ragnar will confuse his thoughts again with quick kisses and slow ones, and Athelstan will forget for a while that he drifts between beliefs, a ship with no spiritual anchor.
It does not change how Athelstan’s skin burns when they touch. It does not change how Ragnar stares a little too long, or how Athelstan sometimes shies from touch. It does not change how they cling together, Ragnar’s grip always a little too painful, Athelstan always secretly hoping he will never let go, each time easing a little more into his grip.